From Fun and Games to Deadly Serious: The Diary of a German Knight

In the year 1458 a German knight named Jorg von Ehingen would travel to the ends of Europe, and experience both the delights of a royal court, and the exhilaration of a fighting a duel to the death.

King Afonso V of Portugal depicted in Jörg von Ehingen's Diary. This may have been an image created by Jorg himself.

There are only a handful of writings from the Middle Ages that were written by knights. These works are very valuable to historians, offering firsthand accounts of war and battle. One example of this kind of work is The Diary of Jorg von Ehingen (1428-1508), a nobleman and knight who served Albert VI, Archduke of Austria. In his later years he wrote an account of his life and travels, which took him from Jerusalem to England.

Around the year 1458 he and a companion named Jorg von Ramysden had decided to leave Austria for a while, as there was no wars being fought, “intending to wander from one country to another until I met with serious and important affairs.” The pair would go to France and Spain before learning that Afonso V of Portugal “was engaged in serious warfare by land and sea with the infidels of Africa” and rushed to join his service.

The German knights soon reached Lisbon, where they took part in the splendours of the Portuguese court:

We were also introduced frequently into the apartments of the Queen’s ladies, where many beautiful dances were held. Then to the chase, with jumping, wrestling, throwing, fencing, and racing with horses and jennets, and there was also much feasting. It was indeed delightful to be there. The King was named Alfonso. He was a handsome, well-grown prince, the most Christian, the worthiest, and most righteous King I have ever known. He kept a regal court, and had with him two margraves and many counts and lords and knights, as well as beautiful women without number. We exercised ourselves in the same manner with knightly sports, on horseback and on foot, with jousting, and tourneys in full armour, since the King took great pleasure in such pastimes. My companion was the strongest in throwing the stone and iron bar, the latter being not light but very weighty, for he was a tall and powerful man, and no one could surpass him in throwing the great stone or at wrestling on horseback or on foot. I was particularly diligent in the combats in armour, for therein I was more skilful than my companion.

The merriment that Jorg von Ehingen experienced at the Portuguese court was soon contrasted with the events of the following pages of his diary, where the knight sailed with Portuguese forces to Ceuta, and from there fought against North African troops in Morocco. In one key moment, Jorg is chosen to be his army’s champion in an one-on-one duel against an opponent from the Moroccan army. Jorg took his spear and rode out to the valley in between the two armies. He writes:

Then, very speedily, one of the infidels appeared, riding across the plain on a fine Barbary steed. I did not delay, but rode at once to meet him. The infidel threw his shield in front of him, and laying his spear on his arm he ran swiftly at me, uttering a cry. I approached, having my spear at the thigh, but as I drew near I couched my spear and thrust at his shield, and although he struck at me with his spear in the flank and forearm, I was able to give him such a mighty thrust that horse and man fell to the ground. But his spear hung in my armour and hindered me, and I had great difficulty in loosening it and alighting from my horse. By this time he also was dismounted. I had my sword in my hand; he likewise seized his sword, and we advanced and gave each other a mighty blow. The infidel had excellent armour, and although I struck him by the shield he received no injury. Nor did his blows injure me. We then gripped each other and wrestled so long that we fell to the ground side by side. But the infidel was a man of amazing strength. He tore himself from my grasp, and we both raised our bodies until we were kneeling side by side. I then thrust him from me with my left hand in order to be able to strike at him with my sword, and this I was able to do, for with the thrust his body was so far removed that I was able to cut at his face, and although the blow was not wholly successful, I wounded him so that he swayed and was half-blinded. I then struck him a direct blow in the face and hurled him to the ground, and falling upon him I thrust my sword through his throat, after which I rose to my feet, took his sword, and returned to my horse. The two beasts were standing side by side. They had been worked hard the whole day, and were quite quiet.

The Diary of Jorg von Ehingen was edited and translated by Malcolm Letts and published by Oxford University Press in 1929.

Our latest issue of Medieval Warfare takes a look at tournaments and jousting, along with the times when these games could take a deadly turn. Click here to learn more.

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